Artist laments ‘flying while brown’ in new Qatar art exhibition
All photos by Ray Toh
Mahmoud Obaidi knows what it feels like to be singled out at the airport.
The Canadian-Iraqi artist visited Doha this week to share his experiences of “flying while brown” in a new exhibition opening at the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf).
Inspired by an encounter with authorities at a Texas airport, Obaidi’s Fair Skies micro-installation uses photography, videography, plastic models and technology to tell his story.
“This is for Arabs, Colombians, Italians – anyone with brown skin,” he told reporters yesterday.
One of the more quirky elements of the small exhibition is a line of five vending machines.
These are filled with products to transform a traveler’s appearance, presumably to eliminate some of the difficulties people of color face while flying.
The products include blonde hair dye, skin whitening cream and blue contact lenses in travel-size kits.
The idea behind the “beauty kit” was to show how a person’s image could be changed enough to get them through an airport without hassle, Obaidi said.
Meanwhile, at the center of the exhibition is a set of three clear plastic boxes that represent miniature scenes of his profiling experience.
The images show him at George Bush international airport in Houston. There, he is picked from a line of people about to board a plane to the Netherlands and then interrogated by airport staff.
Above one of the figures is a thought bubble that says, “Dedicated to all those who looks like me.”
Other features in the exhibition include a short film in which plastic characters animate the incident, which is offset by jaunty accompanying music.
There’s also a work in which images of faces are printed onto clear plastic sheets that are superimposed on each other to show different identities.
Obaidi, 50, left Baghdad in 1991 to obtain his masters degree in Canada. Since then, he said he has been repeatedly singled out at airports for additional screening, particularly in the US.
Recalling the Houston airport incident, he said he was getting ready to board a plane when he got pulled out of line.
“The policeman was passing the line and pulled me out, asking ‘can I see your passport.’
When I explained why I didn’t have particular airport stamps because it was a Canadian passport, he said, ‘don’t raise your hand at me.’ He called for back-up and there was a big scene,” Obaidi said.
The installation, which is now owned by Mathaf, was commissioned for Art Dubai and debuted there in 2010.
Fair Skies is situated in Mathaf’s ground-floor project space. The location allows young curators to experiment with more unusual ideas and methods of presenting them.
Namkha Beschi, assistant curator at Mathaf, told Doha News:
“This exhibition represents a social issue – one we can’t really ignore and which people here will have experienced… We want to get people talking and thinking more about the issue.”
The opening of this installation precedes the launch of a bigger exhibition of Obaidi’s work in Katara next month.
Fragments opens on Oct. 18. In it, the artist examines the destruction of Iraq as he tries to recreate what has been stolen or ruined.
This is the latest in several Qatar exhibitions Obaidi has already undertaken, which included an event at the Museum of Islamic Art in 2013.
Fair Skies will be at the Mathaf in Education City until Jan. 8, 2017. Admission is free.